Tuesday, March 22, 2011

It's a numbers game

I’m reading this at the moment:


and I say AMEN to his critique of our obsession with numbers as the only measure of success in church life. We need to remember, as Mark Yaconelli pointed out, that Jesus only discipled 12 people, and one of them handed him over to be killed and another pretended he didn't know who Jesus was. In the end he died alone because they all ran off. This is true gospel success.

So here's a challenge to my youth ministry friends: try to stop using numbers when you talk about your work. It's very difficult because even if you can stop yourself it's very difficult when that's the only question other people ask you about what you do. And the next hard step is to stop asking your youth ministry friends how many come to their groups.

This is something I’ve been trying to do for a while and I have found it very difficult. That in itself is interesting. What is it in me that wants to boast of bigger? When someone does it to me I feel belittled and inadequate, or superior and puffed up, so why do I want to do that to someone else? And why do I speak about my ministry as God’s work, but if I have a big number to boast of, suddenly feel like it’s because of my own ability as a youth minister? It’s also very challenging when you talk to another youth minister and they ask “So how many do you get to that club” to look them in the eye and say “a good crowd” or “Some nice young people”. Why does refusing to say a number feel like such a subversive act? Maybe youth workers should practice it as a Lenten discipline.

Stackhouse argues that it’s a product of revivalist theology (he makes a very good argument; I would urge you to read the book). I agree with his thinking, but would also add for youth ministers two more pressures. Firstly, the secular model of youth work that demands quantitative data about youth work, rather than thinking about quality, has filtered into Christian youth ministry, particularly those of us who are professionally qualified and paid by churches. And that’s the second pressure; churches who see the youth minister’s job as filling the church, so who look for the proverbial “bums on seats” rather than the quality of discipleship, who see their youth worker lurking in coffee shops rather than herding great crowds of young people through the baptismal pool, and wonder if they are getting value for money.

It seems to me that that the numbers game, however it arises, is based on shaky ideas of what christian faith is, and more importantly, who young people and youth workers are. Fundamentally a young person, or a youth worker, is created in the image of God, and therefore is a unique, individual creation. When what is done with, to, for, or at this young person is looked at through a lens of numerical success, this image is distorted, because they become an object to be counted, not a person to be related to. This is why Jesus was so subversive; he wouldn’t conform to the pressure to achieve success. Every time it was offered to him he turned away from it. The story of his temptation that we reflect on during Lent is an example of this. If Jesus was a youth worker today, the Devil would say to him, “Bow down to me and I’ll give you a really big youth group”. Instead he prioritised people as individuals, meeting them in their need, sharing their pain and challenging them to a life of discipleship. This kind of work happens at meal tables, in coffee shops, walking along together, in sitting rooms, not in vast crowds where nobody knows anybody, but somebody knows the numbers.

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